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Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I received a circular email message yesterday from ObamaForAmerica, inviting me to sign up for a twelve-week course preparing me to be a paid worker in the Obama presidential campaign. The election is eleven months away and Obama is already cranking up his ground game. I should perhaps explain the origin and meaning of that phrase for my readers from overseas. “Ground game” is a term of art from American football. Anyone who has watched an American football game on television is familiar with the “aerial game,” those dramatic moments when a wide receiver races thirty yards down field and plucks a football from the sky thrown with impossible accuracy by a quarterback standing behind the line of scrimmage. But serious fans and old pros will tell you that professional football games are won or lost in the trenches, a strip of turf three yards on either side of the line, where 350 pound behemoths [and that is before they put on their equipment] push and shove to open up slits of daylight through which a halfback can scoot for three, four, or five yards. That is “the ground game.”

The metaphor captures quite nicely the two components of a presidential campaign. The aerial game is the high profile speeches, debates, and tv ads on which the media commentators lavish their attention. But in a nation that can only lure a bit more than half of the eligible voters to the polls in a presidential year, and scarcely more than a third in an off year, elections are won and lost in the neighborhoods where volunteers and paid workers walk the streets, ringing doorbells, handing out literature, and registering citizens to vote. In 2008, Barack Obama and his team ran the most brilliant ground game in the modern history of American politics. Op Ed writers pontificated about Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, the Philadelphia speech about race, and the debate performances, while almost unnoticed, tens of thousands of campaign workers were registering new voters and cajoling nominal Democrats to make the short trip to their local voting places.

In the summer of 2008, shortly after retiring and moving with Susie to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I signed up as a volunteer in the Obama campaign. For the next three months, I got a worm’s eye view of the Obama ground game. [My son, Tobias, a senior law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, first earned his spurs in the January snows of Iowa, and then played an important role in the aerial game, chairing the Advisory Committee on LGBT Affairs for the Obama Campaign and literally flying – on his own dime – from Maine to California, addressing audiences of LGBT activists.] Since all this happened before I had become a serious blogger, it occurred to me that I ought to pass on to my readers some idea of how the Obama ground game was actually played. What follows is as local and individual a description as you will ever read, focusing as it does on what happened in one medium sized town in one county of one state, but if you will, in your mind, multiply this story by all the towns and counties and states in America, you will have some idea of how Obama actually won the nomination and the election.

The Chapel Hill campaign was run by two young paid organizers, whose responsibility extended to all of Orange County. One was a young man from Iowa who volunteered in the caucuses there and then was recruited as a full-time worker. The other was a young North Carolina woman taking a year off from her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The ground game was broken down into three stages. In the first stage, we worked to register new voters, an especially important task in a college town where virtually all of the undergraduates had come of age since the 2004 election. Each day, we would spend hours at tables in front of supermarkets, the town library, the Farmer’s Market, or the desks where new students signed up for their courses, and talked people into filling out registration forms. Some of us would walk the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking whether people were registered. Every evening, before turning the forms in to the local Election Commission office, we would enter the data we had collected into a computer program created by the headquarters of the campaign in Chicago. It was an absolute rule that data must be entered the same day it was collected. Since I find it difficult to engage in conversation with people I have never met, I only did the doorbell ringing gig eight or ten times. Mostly, I entered data, bringing my laptop each day to the headquarters office on Rosemary Street in downtown Chapel Hill.

The second stage was devoted to a combination of information-gathering and persuasion. Each day, the headquarters in Chicago would email us a stack of canvassing maps and accompanying lists of people to try to reach. Each map, printed out on a regular 8 ½ by 11 sheet of computer paper, showed five or six streets of one neighborhood, with thirty or forty black dots arrayed along the streets. Each dot corresponded to one of the names and addresses on the contact list [the maps were constructed from Google Maps, I always assumed.] A pair of volunteers would set out for a two hour shift with a map and a list. We would drive to the neighborhood, park, and start walking up and down the streets, using the address list and the map to locate our targets. At each house, we were to record whether anyone was home, whether the person listed actually lived there [an important consideration in a college town where people change addresses frequently], whether the people listed were registered, and – most important – whom they were planning to vote for. Although the Obama campaign was an entirely separate operation from the local Democratic Party, we also asked about preferences in the gubernatorial and senatorial races and shared information with the Orange County Democratic Organization.

Each evening, the information collected would be entered into the campaign data program. The next day, a new set of lists and maps would arrive by email, taking into account the data that had been entered the previous evening. In that way, we never wasted time searching for a voter who had already been canvassed, unless that person was listed as “uncertain,” in which we case we would go back after a while to try to persuade him or her to vote for Obama.

The final stage of the ground game was the get out the vote effort. As soon as early voting began, we would go out,, visiting the homes of people who had been identified by previous visits as Obama supporters, giving them information cards on voting times and places. Other volunteers manned desks at the voting places and kept track of who was voting, so that we would not try to reach someone who had already voted.

This story was repeated in cities and towns in all fifty states. As the campaign progressed, David Plouffe and his team, in Chicago, would evaluate the costs and benefits, and decide how to shift their paid workers into states that looked promising or out of states that looked lost [the winner take all rules of American politics make it a waste of time to mine lodes of supporters in states that are overwhelmingly for one’s opponent.]

When commentators allude in passing to a candidate’s “ground game,” some version of this operation is what they are talking about. The email I received tells me that the Obama ground game is shifting into gear. None of the Republican candidates has any sort of ground game whatsoever, save perhaps in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the man who is looking more and more likely to win the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich, has never exhibited the slightest talent or patience for the organizational tasks required to create an effective ground game. This is why I am guardedly optimistic, even in a year when the republicans ought to be able to win the White House.


Dave said...

Final proof that Obama really did only get elected because of anarchist, Marxist atheists.

Don Schneier said...

Unfortunately, the offensive line may not be as sound as it was 4 years ago. In particular, the guy playing center, Geithner, has skills suited to the right side of the line, frequently resulting in an undermining of what should have been a powerful sustained offense against one of the weakest defenses in recent history.

High Arka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
High Arka said...

Edit: grammar.

Part 2, for Dave.

Dave, the Professor is not an anarchist or Marxist. He supports Obama the leader and the Obama administration, and is therefore not in favor of a lack of state authority, ergo not an anarchist. He supports the free market and capitalism and its greatest paladins, ergo is not a Marxist. He is likely an atheist, having concluded that factual inaccuracies in the standard Judeo-Christian narrative mean that he knows there is no God-type creator, but he is an anarchist and a Marxist only for the delectable dinner-party shock value in saying so, while still embracing all the tenets of capitalist imperialism and sweetened genocide. In short, he's a poser. And the worst kind, being of the stuffy, elitist, intellectual-superiority type, cloaking praise for death in the excessive recitation of pop history and establishment philosophy.

formerly a wage slave said...

@High Arka:
You have written that "he (RPW) is an anarchist and a Marxist only for the delectable dinner-party shock value in saying so, while still embracing all the tenets of capitalist imperialism and sweetened genocide."

This is an uncharitable personal attack. It is uncharitable because you are supposing the man has very bad motives.

And I use the word "suppose" to indicate that you don't really have much evidence for that claim.

It's a basic principle of civilized discussion that one should not attribute bad motives lightly. From what I've seen at the Occupy Wall Street web site, participants in the Occupy Movement are very clear on that point. They say it's okay to disagree, but you've got to be respectful.

It is disappointing for me, as an occasional reader of this blog, when the quality of the discussion/comments dips as it does with these comments of yours.

You are unhappy at the thought that Obama will continue because it will mean more killing (mass murders) as well as restrictions on female sexuality and economic decline. I see no reason to believe that RPW would disagree with you about that.

I think RPW has been pretty clear that he doesn't like the basic set-up in the USA, doesn't think it is especially fair or good, but given that fact, it is an open question what one should do. You and he may disagree about that, but it doesn't mean you should attack his character.

Also, it's irresponsible to attribute motives or arguments to someone when you are just making them up. The problem is that you may actually be attacking someone who exists only in your own mind. (Have you read RPW's book on anarchism?)

The way you talk about "anarchism" and "Marxism" is a little naive. (You remind me of religious people who say someone "isn't really" Christian or Catholic.) Those terms are used by many different people in different ways, and when they use them differently they are not being irresponsible or dishonest. As far as I can tell "anarchism" and "Marxism" are as much traditions as anything else, and they are traditions which include a lot of variety. It's really silly to accuse someone of not really being an "anarchist" because they do not endorse your specific version of the theory.

I say this as someone who is not any sort of expert, but someone who has tried to figure out what anarchists and Marxists are up to.

So, I think that you need to work on much more than your grammar! Really!

If you think no anarchist or Marxist should support Obama, and you want to get someone to agree with you---as opposed to merely insulting them---- then you need to produce an argument starting with Marxist or anarchist principles and winding up with your favored conclusion. It's no good attacking people personally.

For all I know, you may have tried to produce arguments in the past. Perhaps you produced arguments in the past and I missed them. If so, then you did the good thing in the past, and you let your standards drop now.

(As I said, I am only an occasional reader of this blog, so I do miss things.)

High Arka said...

Thank you kindly, formerly! This one has a long response for you here:

Moved offsite for the benefit of the Professor's page-space, but here's a selection:

" remember is that the remark was actually intended for Dave, though others are welcome to read it if they wish. To Dave, the Professor actually is an anarchist/Marxist. The Professor's ivory tower over-analyzation of various favored white-person talking points and establishment history is exactly the kind of inanity that causes that behavior to be repulsive to the standard image of the "red stater"--which is why that stereotypical red stater clings to the Republican Party, and doesn't want to consider options labeled "anarchist" or "Marxist," however much of an improvement those might offer she or he. By calling himself an anarchist/Marxist, then supporting a corporate death-tyrant like Obama, Mr. Wolff makes people like Dave believe that different authority structures are really just running cover for a grinning demon like the banker-enriching drone-launcher Himself."

Lightspring embrace.

Chris said...

To mildly defend Arka, I have to agree: Marx would not, nor would very few (.01%) Marxist vote for Obama let alone campaign for him....

Amongst the Anarchist crowd, I don't know a single one that actually votes, let alone has a single positive thing to say about the president or an executive branch in general.